Cabbages & Kings: The dark life of school boarders
“The most cunning deception Is self-deception — You can’t find yourself out!”
From Keepup With Copra
This is a difficult column to write. Though this has nothing to do with my difficulty, I should start by noting that earlier this month Ralph Harris, Australian entertainer, singer, TV personality, friend of Margaret Thatcher, portrait painter of the Queen, was jailed for eight years for sexual crimes including rape and paedophilia. Harris is now to be stripped by the Queen of the “honours” she bestowed on him.
There is in Britain, in the wake of celebrities being jailed for paedophilia and public and police inquiries being mounted, a vociferous mood against such crimes. The atmosphere is parallel to the horror manifested in India after the series of rapes that came to public notice. It shouldn’t be possible to be, to adapt a term, a “rape-or-paedophilia-denier”.
Which brings me to my difficulty. This year in November my old school in Pune (then Poona) celebrates its 150th anniversary. It’s a proud moment and publications and preparations are afoot. Old boys have been asked to submit their memoirs of the school for a compilation. Some of these have been sent to me. Being a professional writer (I don’t know of any others the school produced — most boys went on to do very many more useful and distinguished things!), I have been approached for a contribution.
Our school motto was “Thorough!” and as I recall my days there I think this included being scrupulously truthful though I can tell a clutch of possibly entertaining stories in which the spirit and letter of this motto were violated by myself and others.
I suppose I could write a series of anecdotes, setting them in the contexts of the times, about the odd-ball characters among the pupils and staff, about the misdemeanours for which we were caned and the fears, foibles and fun of growing up in that typical and yet unique school environment. I suppose many other potential contributors are thinking along the same lines. And yet... and yet as the English idiom has it, there is an elephant in the room which cannot be talked about in a celebratory memoir.
Some of the contributions I have read so far are literal tributes to our then headmaster Mr “Artie” Lunn, an Anglo-Indian gentleman of great charm and pedagogic and administrative ability. He was a geographer of some note, a member of the Royal Geographical Society of Great Britain and a teacher who made sure that under his entertaining instruction my class memorised the detailed physical features of the Indian subcontinent in a first lesson lasting just 70 concentrated minutes. I can still draw maps of the rivers, their tributaries and distributaries, the plateaux with average heights and geological make-up, the mountain and hill ranges etc. without reference to an atlas or the Internet.
He was a person of natural authority and of a disposition that won the loyalty of pupils and parents alike. I suspected some disgruntlement among some members of staff but put that down to jealousy fomented by relative inadequacies and poverties of perspective.
Nevertheless, this wonderful headmaster’s career ended unceremoniously. He was accused of paedophilia and using his position to perpetrate the crime. He left our school, long after my years there, under a dark cloud. He found a teaching job in North India at the old school where he was brought up and where he subsequently taught. His family life wasn’t a smooth one. His wife, whom we knew as a young woman, divorced him and his son severed contact with him and went abroad years before he was denounced and left Pune. He died in Lucknow.
It’s a sad if not tragic story.
To tell the truth, the seduction, deviant or forced of young lads, boarders at the school, by certain teachers was in my time widely rumoured if not in any case proven. Certain teachers were reputed to behave in this way. It was a talked-about secret and even something of a joke and a jibe. Boys would tease each other for being manifest “favourites” of the paedophile teacher.
It didn’t occur to us as a crime or something to report to the police even if some claimed they had evidence of it. It wasn’t the sort of thing one reported to one’s parents or guardians as they would probably accept it as part of the life, albeit the darker side of it, of the school. Or they might have. I have to face the fact that no consideration was given to the psychological scar this would leave on the victims of the paedophilia. We hadn’t at the time heard of it affecting or causing fears and phobias in the victims as they grew. It was accepted a part of school life, as perhaps the cruelty of authority was accepted as a fact of life in, say, the reign of Muhammad bin Tughlaq.
I have no desire to become or be labelled the bad fairy at the party. I am writing this months before the celebrations of our (yes, I count myself in!) 150 years of existence as a school begin. It was a good school in its way with not much of an intellectual ethos and a lot of emphasis and respect for boys who could play football and win boxing tournaments and not much for budding physicists or poets. I was proud to be a wimpish rebel within it and with a gang of dedicated naysayers, questioned its rigidities, rules and even its roster of respect.
Being day-scholars, the boys I hung out with knew a bit more of the world and were more street-wise to the ways of a fast-changing India than the cloistered boarders. Of course there were defiant and downright wicked boys amongst them too. Wasn’t it Mark Antony who said, “The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones”?
I don’t wish it so for our late headmaster.